Inside the Former Walmart That Is Now a Shelter for Almost 1,500 Migrant Children


Category:  Mental Health and Wellness

Via:  bob-nelson  •  3 years ago  •  21 comments

Inside the Former Walmart That Is Now a Shelter for Almost 1,500 Migrant Children

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

A section of fencing delineating the border between Mexico and the United States in Brownsville, Tex.
Shelters set up to house migrants who crossed the border illegally
have become big business in South Texas.
Matthew Busch for The New York Times

In the loading docks, children sat in a darkened auditorium watching the animated movie “Moana.”

Where there were once racks of clothes and aisles of appliances, there were now spotless dorm-style bedrooms with neatly made beds and Pokemon posters on the walls. The back parking lots were now makeshift soccer fields and volleyball courts. The McDonald’s was now the cafeteria. All this made it difficult to visualize what the sprawling facility used to be — a former Walmart Supercenter.

The converted retail store at the southern tip of Texas has become the largest licensed migrant children’s shelter in the country — a warehouse for nearly 1,500 boys aged 10 to 17 who were caught illegally crossing the border.

The teeming, 250,000-square-foot facility is a model of border life in Trump-era America, part of a growing industry of detention centers and shelters as federal authorities scramble to comply with the president’s order to end “catch and release” of migrants illegally entering the country. Now that children are often being separated from their parents, this facility has had to obtain a waiver from the state to expand its capacity.

Cots are being added to sleeping areas. The staff is expanding. But even that is not enough. Federal authorities are considering establishing tent cities on Army and Air Force bases, and have already transferred hundreds of immigrant detainees to temporary housing at federal prisons.

On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that temporary tent housing would be set up near the border station in Tornillo, Tex., to house up to 360 youths. That prompted an angry response from a Democratic state senator, José Rodríguez, who noted that temperatures could be expected to exceed 100 degrees at the site. “This is what totalitarians in the Middle East and elsewhere do,” he said in a statement.

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States camped out in Mexico as they waited to cross the border
and present themselves to immigration agents in Hidalgo, Tex., this month.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is now overseeing an estimated 100 shelters in 17 states, serving a population that has grown to more than 11,000 youths. One of the biggest concentrations is here near the border in South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest regions in the nation. There are about 10 shelters in three Valley counties, the majority in the Cameron County cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito.

The shelters in and near Brownsville have become big business, employing hundreds of residents and bringing abandoned stores, schools and other buildings back to life in a county where the median household income is $34,578 and the percentage of those living below the federal poverty line is 29.1, far higher than the national poverty rate of 12.7 percent.

But they have also raised questions about federal oversight and management, and the invisibility under which many of them operate.

Numerous shelters that care for unaccompanied migrant youth in Texas have been cited by state child care facility regulators for dozens of violations in recent years, according to data from two of the state’s oversight agencies, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of Family and Protective Services. The majority of the violations were for minor infractions, including incomplete child records. But some were for more serious problems.

At least 13 deficiency citations have been filed against the shelter at the former Walmart in Brownsville, which seemingly overnight became a symbol of the housing scramble after a Democratic lawmaker, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, showed up unannounced to take a tour but was turned away by police escort. Mr. Merkley’s attempt to gain entry this month, captured on Facebook Live by a member of his staff, put national attention on the shelter, which is run by a nonprofit group that contracts with a federal agency.

The shelters are part of the federal government’s attempt to accommodate a flood of young people who have been surging across the Southwest border over the past several years, often without an accompanying parent. Many of them are seeking asylum from gang violence or other troubles in Central America.

The number of children under detention has grown in recent weeks as the Trump administration has begun prosecuting migrants who cross the border illegally. Previously, parents traveling with children were often quickly released with orders to appear later in court — a practice which members of the current administration say was providing a powerful incentive for migrants to take their children in tow and travel to the United States. The number of families apprehended at the border has gone up nearly 600 percent compared with the spring of last year, the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, told Congress in May.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, was denied access to the converted Walmart
where hundreds of migrant children are now held, an episode his office broadcast on Facebook Live.

“Word is getting out,” she said.

But what happens to children in these federally sponsored shelters has had little public scrutiny.

Here in South Texas, the mystery of what the Oregon senator was not allowed to see — the living conditions for hundreds of migrant boys inside a space originally built to house not people but cheap jeans and housewares — was seemingly solved on Wednesday. Federal officials and the operator of the shelter, Southwest Key Programs, led several reporters on a roughly 90-minute media tour and question-and-answer session.

The shelter, called Casa Padre, is a world all its own, much of it invisible to outsiders. The few windows are covered in black mesh; in the parking lot, yellow-painted wooden barricades read, “Keep Out.”

Inside, it is clean, massive and brightly lit. Not far from the entrance, there is a large mural of President Trump, an American flag and the White House, with a quote from Mr. Trump: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

A team of 48 medical staff and three on-call physicians provide medical services. X-rays and laboratory work are done in-house. The children receive classroom instruction for six hours a day Monday through Friday, and outdoor play time for two hours a day.

The building no longer resembles a Walmart. The interior has been redesigned, with walls and hallways constructed to create bedrooms, classrooms and other spaces. The mural featuring the president is one of many; one painting depicts former President John F. Kennedy with his words, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” in English and in Spanish.

Most of the boys are from Central America. Many of them smiled, waved at or shook the hands of the reporters touring the site. They were asked by the reporters and Southwest Key executives, in Spanish, “How are you?”

United States Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville in 2014.
Pool photo by Eric Gay

The constant reply was “Bien, bien,” meaning “OK, OK.” The media was not allowed to interview the children.

Some were leaning back, getting a shampoo at the sinks in the shelter’s barbershop, where a striped lit-up barber’s pole spun outside the door. They lined up in the cafeteria for dinner — chicken, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables. Some played pool, or joined a tai chi session in the rec room. One teenager sat at a cafeteria table with his head bowed and hands clasped, praying silently. Another told the cafeteria worker who served him dinner, “Gracias, Miss.”

Everywhere, some of the shelter’s more than 1,000 employees hovered nearby — they sat at the ends of the cafeteria tables while the boys ate dinner, watched “Moana” with the children in the old loading docks and escorted lines of boys in the hallways.

Many of the boys appeared to be 16 or 17, and the few who were much younger, around the age of 10 or 11, seemed almost out of place. They wore gym shorts and sweatshirts, sneakers and rosary necklaces. One had his arm in a sling and another had his leg wrapped in a bandage. All of them are classified as unaccompanied minors by federal officials — they either crossed the border without a parent or guardian, or were separated from their parents as part of the administration’s new policy of arresting illegal border crossers and separating them from their children.

The vast majority, Southwest Key officials said, crossed the border unaccompanied.

In Bedroom 53, there were four beds on frames and one bed on a cot. The cot highlighted the housing crunch — it was one of hundreds of new beds that were recently added to boost the shelter’s capacity. In May, Casa Padre was licensed by the state at a capacity of 1,186. On Wednesday, after a variance approved by the state allowed Southwest Key to boost its population, the new capacity was roughly 1,500.

Southwest Key executives said the additional children do not make it too big to properly manage. They defended the services and the care they provide the children, as they will likely do when elected officials take tours of their own in the coming days, including Mr. Merkley. A congressional delegation is scheduled to tour the shelter on Monday.

A United States Border Patrol agent searching for a group of undocumented migrants
in a sugarcane field near Mission, Tex., this week.
John Moore/Getty Images

“We pride ourselves in providing excellent child care,” said Alexia Rodriguez, Southwest Key’s vice president of immigrant children’s services, adding, “We’re not a political organization. We take care of kids. We take great care of kids.”

The industry for sheltering young migrants had run into trouble here even before the latest boom. Hundreds of shelter workers in the Rio Grande Valley were laid off at the end of March, after several sites run on contract to the federal government by a private organization, International Educational Services, suddenly shut down. The organization, known as I.E.S., lost its federal financing and shuttered its shelters and other facilities, for reasons that federal officials have yet to publicly explain.

Last year, a worker at a Brownsville shelter yelled at a child, causing the child to punch a wall. In 2016, children in a shelter in the Cameron County town of Los Fresnos were being told to sit down for four hours as a form of discipline. Shelters were cited in various cases after their employees pushed children, slapped their hands with a ruler or grabbed a wrist. Other violations involved a lack of supervision. One child ate a meal she was allergic to, even though she was wearing a red bracelet that listed her allergies.

A shelter in the Rio Grande Valley city of McAllen was cited in January after a child missed several doses of medication, and after children who complained of being in pain had to wait several days before care was provided. In September 2015 in Brownsville, medical staff left rubbing alcohol accessible, and a youth took it and consumed it. In October 2017 in San Benito, a random drug test found a shelter employee had showed up to work over the legal limit for alcohol.

The shelter at the former Walmart has been cited 13 times for deficiencies by state regulators since it was established in March 2017. In August 2017, an employee at Casa Padre made a belittling remark to a child in the presence of other children. One month later, a minor tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease. The medical coordinator failed to follow up, and the minor did not receive medical treatment until four weeks later.

On the tour on Wednesday, Southwest Key and federal officials did not discuss such violations. They saw nothing wrong with the children spending most of their day indoors. They highlighted numerous phone booths around the shelter, including some the children use to call relatives and others that have direct lines to child protection agencies so they can lodge complaints. And they said there were some cases of children who tried to run away. The average length of stay in a migrant children’s shelter is about 56 days, after which children generally are released to a sponsor. Some have been placed with foster families.

Only 3.5 percent of unaccompanied youths who have arrived from Central America have been returned to their home countries, Ms. Nielsen said in her report to Congress.

Asked if there were plans to house even more children at the former Walmart, Ms. Rodriguez said the new state-authorized capacity of roughly 1,500 was the maximum. “That’s it,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “We cannot put any more kids here.”

Article is LOCKED by author/seeder
Bob Nelson
Professor Expert
1  seeder  Bob Nelson    3 years ago

I don't know what to think. Is this good or bad? It's strange, for sure.

I'm seeding this article because I find it worthy of the time necessary to read it and to think about it. I will not be participating in any conversation here, but if you would like to discuss it with me, please contact me via Chat or Private Note - I will reply.

Sophomore Quiet
1.1  luther28  replied to  Bob Nelson @1    3 years ago

I'd go with bad.

Sophomore Quiet
2  luther28    3 years ago

Yup, just making America great again like pre-1863.

We should all be ashamed of ourselves, in particular those spineless things referred to as Congress for allowing this to continue.

charger 383
Professor Quiet
3  charger 383    3 years ago

If they had stayed where they belonged this would not be a problrm

Hal A. Lujah
Professor Expert
3.1  Hal A. Lujah  replied to  charger 383 @3    3 years ago

If this nation of immigrants had stayed "where they belong", this wouldn't be the America it is.

Sophomore Quiet
3.1.1  luther28  replied to  Hal A. Lujah @3.1    3 years ago

Sorry Charger I have to go with Hal on this one, they're kids for crying out loud!

charger 383
Professor Quiet
3.1.2  charger 383  replied to  luther28 @3.1.1    3 years ago

hope you like paying the bill

Hal A. Lujah
Professor Expert
3.1.3  Hal A. Lujah  replied to  charger 383 @3.1.2    3 years ago

What is the bill to be paid for someone willing to earn their keep picking produce or doing landscape work that American's refuse to do?  If anything, the bills for the average citizen will be higher when they are all gone.

Galen Marvin Ross
Sophomore Expert
3.1.5  Galen Marvin Ross  replied to  charger 383 @3.1.2    3 years ago
hope you like paying the bill

The same can be said of you Charger, remember, the longer these kids are kept in tent cities in 90 to 100 degree weather the more it is going to cost the United States tax payer. I'm not talking about "just teens" either, I'm talking about toddlers and, babies being kept in places like this and, in tent cities. How many of those kids that end up in tent cities do you think will die from heat stroke because your presidents policies and, hatred of anyone who isn't rich and, white?

Galen Marvin Ross
Sophomore Expert
3.1.6  Galen Marvin Ross  replied to    3 years ago

I call bullshit on this, none of these kids were ripped from their parents and, put in a separate facility, these are kids who crossed the border BY THEMSELVES to seek asylum, 30% of the kids in these facility's today were taken from their parents at the border by ICE, this is Trumps policy, Trumps DOJ, Trumps ICE, it has nothing to do with Obama or, the Democrats. 

Professor Quiet
4  lib50    3 years ago

Weaponizing the Bible is pretty despicable by any measure.  How much more clear do they (evangelicals? christians?) need to be, their ridiculous justifications are the antithesis of the messages in the Bible.  And these same people want to be the moral arbiters for the country!  Who say they value 'life'!  WTF?  And can Trump take 'credit' for his policies, enough of the 'its Obama's fault' crap.  This is all Trump and the GOP.

Bob Nelson
Professor Expert
5  seeder  Bob Nelson    3 years ago

Bed-time. Locking.

Bob Nelson
Professor Expert
6  seeder  Bob Nelson    3 years ago


Good morning.

Professor Quiet
6.1  lib50  replied to  Bob Nelson @6    3 years ago

Bedtime here, good night!

Professor Guide
8  Pedro    3 years ago

Authors (with assistance from administration) moderate their own articles. Authors are expected to foster healthy, open discussions. They are responsible for the content they submit and must exercise impartiality when reporting abuse.

Article is locked. PRF

Bob Nelson
Professor Expert
8.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Pedro @8    3 years ago

This seed is unlocked. It is being correctly Moderated, as demonstrated by the fact that another Moderator has already intervened at my request via Flag.

Please do not needlessly derail into meta. Thank you.

Perrie Halpern R.A.
Professor Principal
8.1.1  Perrie Halpern R.A.  replied to  Bob Nelson @8.1    3 years ago

That is not participating. This is clear in the CoC. Furthermore, when a mod locks an article you can't reopen it. You have earned yourself a 2 day suspension. Please come back with a new attitude. 

Suspension ends June 18, at 1:30 edt. 


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